The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Rock and Hawk,” one of Robinson Jeffers’s most often reprinted short poems, has been regularly identified as one of his signature pieces—that is, it presents, in simple, direct form, one of his main themes. That theme has been called “Inhumanism.” It is based in the concept that humans, far from being the central point of reference in the cosmos, are a minor component of the process, significant only because they are capable of producing damage out of proportion to their importance. The idea is Darwinian, growing out of Jeffers’s post-college researches in medicine and biology. It can be considered an early statement of the radical environmental attitude.

The poem accomplishes this by presenting what it calls a “symbol”: a falcon perched on an ancient, massive rock high on a headland. In this symbol, the poem states, “Many high tragic thoughts/ Watch their own eyes.” This complex allusion draws several ideas together. On one level, thoughts of high tragedy have conventionally been those that best represented the values of human civilization, those qualities that humans prized. Here they “watch their own eyes,” as if distrustful of their own motives. Second, in one high tragedy, that of Oedipus, the hero literally pierces his eyes because of the horror he has been forced to discover about himself. Finally, if thoughts of high tragedy are thus suspect, their eyes betray fundamental human hypocrisy. The rock juts out, the single...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robinson Jeffers is remarkable among modern poets for his simplicity of presentation. He uses a minimum of effects, preferring, like his biblical models, to rely on basic devices to project his themes. “Rock and Hawk” is no exception. It is one of Jeffers’s “short line” poems, in which he forsakes his customary preference for long lines—those with more than five stresses. This poem presents seven three-line stanzas, each with three stresses spaced irregularly.

This stark simplicity serves his subject well. It is doubled by his diction. The poem first announces that it centers on a symbol, thereby spelling out what it is doing. It follows this with an arresting phrase and a classical figure: In this symbol, “high tragic thoughts/ Watch their own eyes.” The figure is a double paradox—thoughts cannot literally watch, and things cannot in any case look at their own eyes. The figure reminds one of the celebrated passage in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600) in which Cassius asks Brutus, “Can you see yourself, Brutus?” Jeffers uses the figure to suggest a number of things, chief among which is probably that Western culture’s conventional ways—the high tragic ways—of looking at things may not be enough.

The second stanza presents the first part of the symbol, the rock, standing “where the seawind/ Lets no tree grow.” This personification is important. It suggests that control resides in the...

(The entire section is 479 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brophy, Robert J. Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976.

Brophy, Robert J., ed. The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter: A Jubilee Gathering, 1962-1988. Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1988.

Everson, William. The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Brownsville, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1995.

Nolte, William H. Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Thesing, William B. Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Vardamis, Alex A. The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographical Study. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972.

Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.